Religiously inclined movies as different as "Dogma" and "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" have settled into multiplexes, and more pictures with religious themes continue to arrive. Today brings no fewer than three, although only "The End of the Affair" is opening on a widespread basis right away. "Holy Smoke!" is playing for a week to qualify for the Oscar race, and will return on Jan. 14 for regular engagements. "Genesis" is a West African import due on video after a limited theatrical release.
The End of the Affair comes from Neil Jordan, who established himself as a master of screen surprises with "The Crying Game" seven years ago. His new movie is adapted from a respected novel by Graham Greene, retaining the book's mixture of sensuality and spirituality while making various changes to condense and streamline the story. The result is an unconventional drama that begins as a sexually explicit love story and ends as a sober reflection on the power of faith.
Ralph Fiennes plays an English author who hires a detective to investigate the life of a married woman (Julianne Moore) he had an affair with during the World War II era. Expecting to learn the sordid details of a subsequent romance she's had, he instead discovers why she abruptly stopped their own relationship years earlier. The answer hinges on a time when he was almost killed in a London air raid, leading her to promise God she'd sacrifice her love in return for his safety. Although she wasn't a religious person until the moment she made this vow, her leap of faith has gathered momentum and become a guiding force in her life - which her former lover finds impossible to understand until much later, when he witnesses a healing that even his skeptical sensibility finds impossible to deny.
Jordan hasn't been a religious filmmaker in the past, so the spiritual interests of "The End of the Affair" mark an unexpected turn in his career. It's hard to question his sincerity, though, or his apparent desire to prompt serious thought with this movie. Excellent acting by Fiennes and Moore further enhance the picture, ably assisted by Stephen Rea as the heroine's colorless husband.
Some viewers may question Jordan's decision to make parts of the film sexually graphic enough to deserve a hard R rating, but others will find this outweighed by the celebration of religious faith that closes the story.
By contrast, Jane Campion's new drama Holy Smoke! seems a largely squandered opportunity. Kate Winslet, of "Titanic" and "Sense and Sensibility" fame, plays a young Australian woman who's moved to India and joined the following of a mystical guru. Luring her home on false pretenses, her parents hire a self- styled deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) to clear her mind of cultish delusions. Alone in a rural hut, the devotee and the skeptic try to wear each other down in a drawn-out war of conflicting belief systems.
Campion has earned international acclaim for movies like "The Piano" and "Portrait of a Lady," but here she reduces her fascinating subject to a two- character psychodrama that doesn't work particularly well on either spiritual or psychological levels. Winslet's superb acting and Keitel's feisty presence may win the film a fairly wide audience, though.
Genesis, directed by Mali filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko, retells the biblical story of Jacob and Esau with an eye toward illuminating today's widespread conflicts between clans, tribes, and nations that have differing visions of what constitutes a decent and constructive way of life. Combining its Old Testament story with vivid African imagery, the film may have confusing moments for moviegoers used to traditional Western treatments of this material. For those willing to meet it on its own terms, however, it offers rich new perspectives on a timeless subject.
'The End of the Affair' and 'Holy Smoke!' are both rated R and contain nudity, explicit sex, and violence. 'Genesis,' not rated, contains violence.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society